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A Times Editorial

Too many excuses within a county devoid of leadership

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 3, 2002

The county administrator admits he accepted a gift from a private vendor and successfully argues that doing so is ethical.

County commissioners join him not only in condemning the lone policy that regulates such behavior, but set about rewriting the policy to make it more lenient.

Almost as an aside, the commission's top employee is asked if he has accepted any other gifts, and he refuses to answer until he talks to his attorney.

Sadly, this is what passes for good government in Hernando County these days.

Last week's mishandling of Paul McIntosh's blatant conflict of interest was not just sloppy and disappointing; it was embarrassing and insulting. The most positive result may have been that it confirmed residents' suspicions that the commissioners aren't just indecisive when it comes to managing McIntosh, they are more concerned about offending him than they are the public.

There was plenty of speculation last week that McIntosh would be reprimanded, or possibly fired, for accepting a free round of golf from an Orlando firm to whom he later steered county business. (That also was a violation of county purchasing policies.) But when Tuesday's meeting rolled around, instead of making an example of McIntosh, the commissioners made excuses.

Lead apologist for the day was Chris Kingsley, a fellow golfer, who illogically surmised that the board's policy against accepting gifts was too strict and unenforceable. He compared McIntosh's acceptance of a $100 round of golf to other employees who might be offered a sandwich or cup of coffee at a professional conference.

Kingsley's analogy is extreme and ridiculous, conveniently overlooking the more important point that McIntosh has more power than any other employee to affect the outcome of private companies' dealings with the county.

Moments later Commissioners Betty Whitehouse, Nancy Robinson, Mary Aiken and even usually caustic Diane Rowden exonerated McIntosh after learning that Human Resources Director Barbara Dupre and the legal staff had relied on some confusing combination of outdated and/or vague information to interpret the policy on accepting gifts.

Then the commissioners did what they do best. They avoided making a decision about disciplining McIntosh, choosing instead to direct their staff to rewrite the gifts policy. What's more, it is apparent they intend -- incredibly, on the advice of McIntosh -- to make the policy less restrictive than it already is.

It's enough to turn the most trusting taxpayer into a foot-stomping cynic.

McIntosh's poor judgment has occupied an inordinate amount of the board's time in the past few months. The blunders of two of his most trusted staff members, including Dupre and Emergency Management Department Director Bill Appleby, have compounded the commission's distractions.

Consequently, a board that was making some real headway on important issues -- like economic development, landscaping, commercial construction, water usage, recreation, recycling, land preservation -- is stymied by avoidable internal issues. Now, instead of talking about the traffic problems the proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter will generate in Spring Hill, for example, the commission spends more time worrying about what new fine mess the administrator has gotten them into.

And the administrator, instead of working to mold his factional department managers into a team, spends too much time contriving feeble excuses for inexcusable gaffes.

It's not fair to other government employees who look to the administrator to be a leader and set an example that is above reproach. And it is not fair to taxpayers who depend on their commissioners to be decisive and unafraid to tackle problems head-on.

Accepting gifts is not, as McIntosh casually characterized it Tuesday, "much ado about nothing." On the contrary, it is not enough ado about some things that should supersede policy manuals and be inherent in our most trusted public servants:

Common sense and principle.

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